Keeping in Touch, 24 Hours a Day

Cell phones, pagers make Americans reachable - like it or not

HUGH MUOZ was out on the golf course one Saturday when his pager went off. A senior consultant for a Boston mutual-fund company, he figured the message concerned yet another meeting.

But the readout conveyed more important news: "Daddy, I've got my first loose tooth - Willy."

Wireless communications have made Americans more reachable than ever before. And while pagers and cell phones have been touted for increasing productivity in business, they are also changing the way we live - from parents issuing cell phones to roving teenagers to restaurants handing out pagers for patrons wait for tables.

This year, 24 percent of United States households will have at least one cellular phone, according to the Electronic Industries Association. Sales of pagers are expected to reach $315 million in 1996, up from $275 million in 1995. "They have given us tremendous freedom," says Mark Rosenker, vice president of public affairs for EIA.

Ten years ago, doctors, lawyers, and high-ranking government officials were about the only people who wore beepers on their belts or toted portable phones. In the late '80s, the personal communicators symbolized ambition and became yuppie status symbols. They also marked a leap toward the "futuristic" world: The dream of communicating like Captain Kirk had become a reality.

Now, with the devices becoming less expensive, more efficient, and smaller - and competition driving service fees down - nonbusiness use of pagers and cell phones is skyrocketing.

For Jay Russell, "peace of mind" was the goal in clipping on the pager he wore for six weeks this winter. He and his wife, Catherine, were expecting a baby, and as a busy accountant, he was rarely reachable at one number. As it turned out, their son was born on a Saturday, but the pager was "definitely worth it," he says.

Pagers or cell phones are indispensable for dual-career parents, says Mr. Munoz, father of three who has his home computer hooked up to his pager so his children can send him messages. He and his wife also like the fact that their babysitter knows how to page them when they're out.

To see the trend in full force, look no further than the big screen. In "Heat," police chief Al Pacino gets paged with leads. In "Clueless," high school student Alisha Silverstone gabs on a cell phone to her highly connected friends.

The technology has also caused dramatic challenges in movies: No longer able to hang up the phone in anger, characters have been reduced to forcefully slamming down their phone antennas.

In the marketplace, one company introduced a mock pager that provides a beep as an excuse to get out of a conversation. Even the junior set is linking up with plastic kiddie versions.

At-the-hip communication, as it is sometimes referred to, does have its down side, though. Media reports have noted increased use among drug runners and prostitutes, for example. Some schools have banned pagers and phones because administrators see them as disruptions in class and as aids to drug dealing.

And in the workaday world, what some professionals view as increased productivity, others see as an electronic leash, where, as one property manager puts it, "9-to-5 is a joke!"

Sometimes the pressure to be always reachable is self-inflicted. "People are becoming prisoners to the technology, because they're scared to be out of touch," says Jeff Maher, a time-management consultant in Chicago, whose metro area claims one of the highest concentrations of cell phone users in the US. "Yes, the technology is great ... but I'm not convinced that [it's] great time management," he says, adding that the distraction may be counterproductive. (Maher uses neither a cell phone nor a pager but counts his computerized caller-ID as a major time-saver.)

Then, there are courtesy and privacy issues. Until recently, a ringing cell phone or the beep-beep-beep of a pager has been considered an acceptable interruption. Must be important, right?

But anyone who has heard a beeper go off in church or during an important meeting knows that attitude is changing.

Just ask Bill Cowher, coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who put the kibosh on personal communicators in the locker room after they kept interrupting a key pep talk last season. Likewise, many city restaurants tell patrons to turn off cellular phones while dining.

Etiquette experts have heard related questions: Should you talk on the phone in an elevator? How about on public transportation?

The sometimes-false sense of "we can call from anywhere" has also proved impractical. While the Mall of America used to rent pagers and cell phones to shoppers, structural interference caused transmission problems. In New Hampshire, search-and-rescue workers say time and resources are being spent bailing out inexperienced hikers with cell phones who venture into wilderness areas thinking help is just a phone call away.

All these issues, industry observers say, are forcing technology to evolve with lifestyle and business use. Pagers, for example, now have the option of vibrating as well as beeping.

Using a new two-way pager, Maggie Colby, a marketing consultant in the San Francisco Bay area, can answer back from her pager's pre-programmed menu, with such responses as "yes," "no," "will be late," etc. "It's nice because if I'm in a meeting, I don't have to excuse myself and find a phone," she says.

That kind of convenience can be useful, whether you're at home - or on the golf course.

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